The Hits Keep on Coming for Bach Dancing and Dynamite

(But there are a few quibbles…)

 

I can’t shake the feeling that even if I attended all six of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society programs some year, I’d still feel like it all went too quickly. Worst still, I only made two of them again this year, but at least they were the two that I was most excited to experience.

Saturday night (June 24) at the Playhouse at the Overture Center, BDDS closed its 26th season to a house that left some seats on either end of the horseshoe configuration, top and bottom, empty. One can’t blame the programming: the last of the season’s “Alphabet Soup” was called “R&B,” and the big works should have been major draws, the Santa Fe Songs of Ned Rorem and a pillar of the chamber music repertoire, Brahms’ Piano Quintet, Op. 34.

But the evening began with the alphabetic anomaly of Franz Doppler’s “Fantaisie pastorale hongroise,” for flute and piano. Co-founder Stephanie Jutt was the soloist, deftly accompanied by Randall Hodgkinson. Aside from being a suitable curtain-raiser, and happily untainted by too many Hungarian clichés, the work served as a powerful reminder of what the UW-Madison is losing as Jutt retires from the faculty—but we can be grateful that she will remain in her principal flute position at the Madison Symphony, and continue to produce more BDDS magic with Jeffrey Sykes for the foreseeable future.

The Rorem songs featured bass-baritone Timothy Jones, who graced last season’s BDDS with a world premiere of Kevin Puts, and was here in May for the MSO’s A German Requiem of Brahms…and one listener at least couldn’t wait to get more of his fervent vocalism.

BUT…once again, the decision was made to keep the lights down, even though we had been given the texts. Even if one read them before the start, there are nuances and subtleties that cannot be enjoyed unless the text is understood in the moment. The previous week’s Friday concert had also kept lights down for some exquisite Ravel, the argument being made that one couldn’t fully enjoy the light-projected installations of Helen Hawley. But Saturday the projection, suitably simple and apropos to the feeling of the Southwest, did not change throughout the dozen songs. At the risk of firmly establishing my apparently growing curmedgeonliness: Please leave the lights on, or project surtitles, or don’t bother wasting paper on the texts. I would rather see the ink invested in written program notes (although it has been a mostly successful BDDS tradition to share programming insights from the stage).

Nearly lost in my venting is the true bottom line: the cycle is full of compelling expressions, with Jones being joined by Sykes on piano, Hye-Jin Kim on violin, violists Ara Gregorian and cellist Madeleine Kabat. The latter was a late replacement for Parry Karp, who is apparently recovering from some injury or condition affecting a finger. Long esteemed for his work of four decades as cellist of the Pro Arte Quartet, Karp has also been a frequent BDDS collaborator, and WGS extends sincerest wishes and prayers for a swift and complete recovery. But to recap the event itself: the Rorem songs (and he was prolific in this genre) deserve to be sought out (in fact, BDDS had offered this set in its second season), and Jones is a singer who should enjoy a substantial and impactful career; we hope he makes it a habit of performing in Madison.

The weight of the Rorem opus was dispelled by a two-movement Boccherini quintet for flute and strings; it was as if we had had our aural palate cleansed, to mix metaphors.

The second half opened with a brief, newer work by another BDDS favorite, the “Rounds for Robin” by Kevin Puts. Again, it was just last year that he had a world premiere as part of the quarter-century season of BDDS, and another of his works was heard earlier this season. Written in 2015 as a memorial to Robin Williams, the piece effectively hinted at the mercurial moods of the great actor and comedian, and Jutt and Sykes gave the work its full due.

Then it was time for a surprise, not listed in the program, which in itself is another BDDS tradition. Not surprisingly, they tried to push the envelope again, by having a hip-hop dancer perform to a sextet version of a truncated Barber of Seville overture by Rossini. The young man was Blake Washington, a former winner of an  Overture Center Rising Star competition, and currently majoring in both dance and political science at UW-Milwaukee (really a smart combination, given how most politicians spend so much of their time dancing around issues). Yours truly is thoroughly unqualified to critique the niceties of Washington’s choreography, but there was a general air of good-natured whimsy about the whole affair. I suspect Rossini would not have minded the appropriation, and certainly the crowd responded with vociferous approval.

Ah, but at last came the crown jewel of the night, and one of the major readings of the three weeks of concerts. Brahms’ Piano Quintet is arguably his first true masterpiece, virtually symphonic in its breadth and power. The fivesome of Hodgkinson, Kim joined by Soh-Hyun Park Altino on violin, Gregorian and Kabat once more on viola and cello respectively, offered a suitably turbulent reading. A purist might argue that the opening phrase might have been stretched slower than usual, but it was as if they players themselves needed to consider carefully once more what dramatic possibilities lay ahead. Last week we experienced what a long time veteran ensemble can give us, when the San Francisco Piano Trio played Brahms’ Piano Trio No. 2. Here we had the flip side: players who do not play together regularly, bringing a fresh and invigorating approach. And while there was much to savor in terms of the interaction of the players, Kabat’s cello playing must be singled out, particularly as she had been captivating to hear all night. She has been assistant principal cellist here in the Madison Symphony, but apparently those days are behind her, as she will join the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra this season as acting assistant principal cello. Perhaps she will grace the 27th BDDS programs next June…

But we won’t have to wait quite that long for another BDDS fix: in August they will make a new CD of music of Puts (including last season’s world premiere, In at the Eye) and James Scott Balentine. You’ll have to improvise your own hip-hop at home.

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